Six non-government organizations (NGOs) have jointly issued a statement in response to remarks made by Minister of Law and Home Affairs, K Shanmugam at the Asia Pacific Forum Against Drugs on 26 October 2017 which claimed that there have been growing calls from activists and “well-funded campaigns” around the world, including in Singapore, for a softer stance against drugs and that activists had been presenting the argument that it is medically acceptable to use drugs or propose policies to decriminalise drug use.
Mr Shanmugam said at the second Asia-Pacific Forum Against Drugs, “In our view that is reckless, irresponsible, it’s a cop-out and it’s a step backward. It will worsen the problem, it has worsened the problem in the countries that have taken these steps.”
Pointing that some have been trying to sway public opinion of the death penalty by “romanticising individuals who have been involved in the drug trade”, Mr Shanmugam said “What they do not focus on are the thousands of people whose lives are ruined, whose families are ruined,” and declared that the Singapore Government and agencies are “happy and prepared” to debate the issue with the death penalty abolitionists at any forum.
In a statement that is signed and endorsed by the six local non-government organisations, namely Community Action Network – “CAN Singapore”, Function 8, MARUAH, Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign (SADPC), Think Centre and We Believe In Second Chances, said that there were misleading claims made about death penalty abolitionists in Singapore.
In the statement, it was said that none of the abolitionist groups in Singapore have ever been invited to participate in a discussion on tackling drug abuse.
The statement stressed that advocates of abolition in Singapore have not and do not call for the legalisation of drugs, encouraging Singaporeans to participate in open and evidence-based debates on this issue, including the discussion of whether the death penalty is an effective method of addressing the problem. The NGOs further hope that Mr Shanmugam and the Government of Singapore will make public the research and data they have relied upon to come to their conclusions about the death penalty in Singapore, so that all Singaporeans will be able to the study the issue.
“We note that the Minister claims to be ‘happy and prepared’ to engage with abolitionists, and look forward to such opportunities in the future,” they added.
Below is the statement in full:
We read with concern the speech made by Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Home and Affairs and Law, at the Asia Pacific Forum Against Drugs on 26 October 2017.
In his speech, the Minister makes misleading claims about abolitionists in Singapore that we would like to clarify.
Firstly, advocates of abolition in Singapore have not and do not call for the legalisation of drugs. There is a range of opinions and perspectives on the issue of drug policy among members of the abolitionist campaign. However, we agree that the problem of drug abuse—which, according to government data, has risen overall between 2003–2016—is of concern and should be addressed in holistic ways. We encourage Singaporeans to participate in open and evidence-based debates on this issue, including the discussion of whether the death penalty is an effective method of addressing the problem.
To this end, we invite the Minister to make publicly accessible all data related to the use of the death penalty (beyond the annual number of judicial executions), as well as the studies and evidence behind his claims, so Singaporeans can peruse and consider these sources. We are particularly interested in the evidence behind claims that the death penalty “substantially reduces the number of people who seek to traffic drugs into Singapore”, as well as the Minister’s sources of information when he says that things have “worsened” or “gone wrong” in contexts where different models of dealing with drugs have been adopted.
In his speech, Mr Shanmugam made references to “romanticising individuals who have been involved in the drug trade” and telling “romantic stories” about those who have been convicted of drug trafficking.
We take issue with this mischaracterisation; the stories of death row inmates and their families are important because these experiences are also part of the death penalty and its application in Singapore, and should not be erased from ongoing conversations about capital punishment in our country.
In talking about the use of the death penalty, Mr Shanmugam said: “We in Singapore, I have said repeatedly, do not take any joy or comfort in having the death penalty, and nobody hopes or wants to have it imposed. We do it reluctantly, on the basis that it is for the greater good of society. Indeed, that it saves more lives. That is the rationale on which we have it.”
Even if one believes that the death penalty is a regrettable but necessary measure to be imposed “reluctantly, on the basis that it is for the greater good of society”, one should acknowledge the humanity of those affected by the death penalty, and the ripple effects that capital punishment has on both those closest to it and society at large.
Telling the stories of death row inmates, their families, and the human experience of the death penalty is not an act of “romanticising”. These stories are critical contributions to the open conversations that we need to get going. As Justice Choo Han Teck has observed, there are drug offenders who may appear to be villains, but “close up, they also resemble the victims for they are themselves victims” as they collect drugs to sell and feed their own addictions. Without such perspectives, Singapore’s debates on the death penalty will lack complexity and nuance, and be weakened by its disconnect from the variety of real-world effects of such a policy.
As the Minister mentioned in his speech, the Asia Pacific Forum Against Drugs was created in 2015, with the intention to “bring together governments, NGOs, and get open conversations going”. We understand that the forum is invite-only; we regret that none of the abolitionist groups in Singapore have ever been invited to participate in a discussion on tackling drug abuse.
We welcome the Minister or any other member of the Government of Singapore and its agencies to attend our events on the death penalty. These events are often publicised on social media and open for registration to any who are interested in engaging on the issue. We also note that we had sent invitations to our events to elected officials in previous years.
To conclude, we hope that Mr Shanmugam and the Government of Singapore will make public the research and data they have relied upon to come to their conclusions about the death penalty in Singapore, so that all Singaporeans will be able to the study the issue. We note that the Minister claims to be “happy and prepared” to engage with abolitionists, and look forward to such opportunities in the future.